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Preaching from Year B, August to October 2021

11 June 2021

Pastoral Preaching: ‘Bridging the Gap’

Features Editor, Roman Catholic Permanent Deacon in the Westminster Diocese, former Principal Lecturer in Theology, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

Some years ago, American homileticist Leonora Tibbs Tisdale came to London to speak for the College of Preachers. On that occasion, as in her book ‘Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art’, she emphasised that, although the content of the message might be clear to the preacher, the readiness of the congregation to hear it is another matter. Tisdale suggested that ‘one way of bridging this gap requires the building of a ‘local theology’. For Tisdale, the community is the author of contextual theology and ‘preachers are local theologians, called to craft theology that is shaped for very particular communities of faith.’

 

EMPATHY BETWEEN PREACHER AND CONGREGATION

Reflection on Tisdale’s insight suggests that the pastoral relationship is crucial to establishing an imaginative empathy between preacher and congregation. Where the preacher has no direct pastoral relationship with his or her hearers, some homework is required. The first question a visiting preacher should ask is not just ‘what am I attempting to communicate?’ but ‘who am I preaching for? Tell me about the congregation.’ The preacher, like Jesus on the way to Emmaus, or Yahweh in the Book of Exodus, not only challenges but also travels with and alongside the people on their journey.

 

CONTRASTING PREACHING STYLES

Traditional preaching styles were, and are, largely deductive. The preacher proclaims the message of biblical truth and relates it to the lives of the individuals in the congregation. There are fine examples of this expository form of preaching in this issue of The Preacher. Inductive preaching by contrast, begins by engaging with the lived experience of those listening to the sermon and leads on to suggesting ways in which faith in Christ engages with such experience. As Jo Logan suggests in the article ‘Listening to the Other’; ‘whenever we listen to someone else, we enter new territory – the life of the ‘other’, a process that is ‘important both for pastoral care and preaching. For both, it helps to avoid suggesting easy one-size-fits-all fixes for complex personal and social issues.’

For Logan, listening enables the other person to find their own ways forward and respecting their agency. And ‘relating this principle to preaching suggests homiletic aims that are less about what a sermon teaches and more about what a sermon enables its hearers to do.’ Or as Natalie Wigg-Stevenson tells us in her article ‘Preaching as Performance Art’, ‘when preachers take stock of their context, they allow the borders between preacher, participants, and congregation to blur.’

This model of inductive preaching is not without its critics. For some it can seem to be a ‘dumbing down’ or trivialising of the message. Should the preacher start out by extoling the beauty of the destination, or by meeting the drivers at the garage doors of their homes? A few examples of inductive pastoral empathy in the sermons that follow illustrate a proper balance between the integrity of the message and pastoral empathy with the congregation.

 

SHOW US A SIGN!

Pauline Godfrey (for 1 August) begins with the common concern of following a satnav for an hour and wondering whether the correct postcode has been inserted. ‘Do you trust devices to get you to your destination or would you always return to a map? How do you choose who or what to trust?’

This leads directly to the travellers in the story of the Exodus who ‘really are on a journey of trust.’ So too, the crowds following Jesus are on a journey (John 6:24-35). What sign will he give them? ‘Like the Israelites with Moses, they look back, this time to the wilderness journey – ‘They had manna to eat – what will you give us?’

Pauline’s homily finds its final application back in the experience of her congregation: ‘Surrounded by fake news and scam calls, it’s no surprise that any sense of trust or belief in truth or our own understanding is undermined. What can we trust? … Jesus’ answer is the same to us as it was to his followers: an invitation to come to him, to trust him.’

 

A KAIROS MOMENT

In a fine example of local theology, Sarah Siddique Gill is preaching to a congregation in an area that has become religiously and culturally diverse. She finds that the readings (Numbers 11 and Mark 9:38-50) can help her congregation to discern what God is doing in their changing social context. This enables her to conclude that ‘It is a Kairos moment for us as minority Christians to be like salt with Jesus’ flavour in the community. Let us discern what God is doing in our context. We are here to take initiative and move from maintenance to mission.’

 

LOCAL BECOMES UNIVERSAL

Sometimes ‘local theology’ coincides with more general concerns affecting everybody. Such is the case with the Covid pandemic. Georgina Pinches, preaching for 3 October 2021 finds that the pandemic leads her congregants to a renewed concern for the environmental future of the planet that requires a rereading of Genesis 2:18-24 as ‘crucial to our understanding of the world in which we live.’

For Paul Rowan, preaching on the story of the Rich Young Man (Mark 10:17-3) for 10 October, the awareness of mortality sharpened by Covid helps him to engage with the pastoral issue of death and the fear of death. He asks his hearers to ponder what they will do with the days that they have left, and concludes triumphantly with the profoundly pastoral message, ‘We’ve only got so many, so I’m going to shut up now and not waste any more of your precious time. Go out and love someone!’

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